Review: The Removalists – Queensland Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

It’s been a while since I’d last seen one of David Williamson‘s best plays, The Removalists – 36 years, in fact, in an opening night performance of a production by QTC at the old La Boite Theatre in Hale Street. I took the opportunity this week to see a matinee performance once again at Queensland Theatre Company. I was surrounded by kids, and seniors like me; weekday matinees tend to be like that.

The current production, directed by Michelle Miall for the Studio program, was a bit of a nostalgia trip in many ways, and I wondered how the high school students around me would react to a period piece – for such it is. The first production of the play in Melbourne in 1971 featured David Williamson as the removalist, and his wife to be, Kristin. This production marks the play’s 40th anniversary. Still hard to believe …

Back in the early 1970s Australian drama was going through its heady nationalist phase. The Ocker figure made his appearance over and over, the women’s liberation movement was getting an exploratory nod (here and there) on stages, and more than a fair sprinkling of vulgarity and violence was the norm. Lots of beer cans were popped on stage and the male vernacular ruled. They were exciting theatrical times and it was all exhilarating stuff, although female characters tended to be short-changed in what was an overwhelmingly masculinist world on stage. More often than not, these productions shocked the socks off seniors at matinee performances back then. These plays hadn’t made the schools’ syllabus list – these too were awaiting liberation.

Williamson’s text is tight, entertaining realism in the service of a good yarn; this much hasn’t changed at all. The twin protagonists – Sgt Dan Simmonds played by Chris Betts and Kenny Carter by Steven Rooke – are terrific, layered characters which remain a challenge and, I imagine, a delight to play for any actor. They are two of the great roles in modern Australian drama. Both Betts and Rooke are well matched here and in good form as they spar verbally and physically.

As I watched, I was reminded of something that was obvious in a lot of Australian plays from the 1970s: Williamson wrote awful roles for women. Until later on, when complex, central characters like Frances (Travelling North) or Barbara (The Perfectionist) appeared in his works, this lack of meaty roles for women in his plays was a bone of contention amongst female actors. In this production of The Removalists (one of those plays) two fine actors Emmaline Carroll (Fiona Carter) and Natasha Yantsch (her sister, Kate) are constrained by roles which are as slight as the male roles are rich; they are almost entirely satellites and supports to the males. Peter Cook as Rob, the Removalist, and Anthony Standish who plays Simmonds’ foil, the new cop on the job, Const Neville Ross round out the cast.

Michelle Miall’s production keeps the pace up – 1 hr 44 mins with no interval – and she lets more of the comedy show. Chris Betts’ Simmonds is less the sinister, terrifying thug than comic, lecherous braggart circling Kate in hopes of some overtime fun. Steven Rooke is excellent as Kenny; it’s some of his best work, and he’s always good. Anthony Standish is terrific too as Ross; he’s the embodiment of a boofhead – all nervous, try-hard precision. In a weird way, even after you know he’s committed an appalling crime, you just can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Kenny’s the same. He’s unlikeable but sufficiently complex to grab our interest and our sympathy. ‘I’m unpredictable. It’s part of me charm,’ he notes cannily of himself. Williamson may well have written the role of Rob knowing he was going to play it himself in that original production. It was a smart move either way; it’s an unforgettable little pearler of a role. Once heard, you never forget that defining mantra from the guy who knows he’s the real man in charge, ‘I’ve got $10 000 worth of machinery ticking over out there in the drive.’ Peter Cook fills this smartypants Everyman role with relish – and a smirk.

In the post-show Q&A session the kids asked about the props: ‘Were they real?’ they asked. There’s a television audience for you! It turns out that the labels and packaging, uniforms and set dressing were all of period in which the play is set. Lit by Jason Glenwright,  Simone Romaniuk‘s wonderfully-awful-70s (you can still get that wallpaper?) set design works well for police station (Act 1) and Kenny and Fiona’s living room (Act 2.) I’m a sucker for those soundscape atmospheric mixes of music and popular culture from a period. Here, Sound Designer Tony Brumpton gathers snatches of television and news broadcasts from the early 1970s and gets the sound of the times spot on as well. By the bye, hasn’t the style of VO announcers changed?

Whilst the student audience asked about the police corruption portrayed in the play, no one talked about how the actors had worked on the violence which made The Removalists such a shocking piece when it was first produced on Australian stages; there’s that television audience again. Whilst I recall squirming during the onstage violence – choreographed by Scott Witt – I found even more revolting the perverted mateship that plays out over a beer and a cigarette. Kenny drags himself back from the kitchen where Ross has beaten and kicked him to a bloody mess, and, in the scene that follows, Williamson sets up one of the most violent and disturbing endings in Australian drama. Beer can in hand Kenny dies from a massive cerebral haemorrhage and, in what the stage directions describe as ‘a frenzied ritual of exorcism,’ both police officers beat each other senseless over his body. It’s truly brilliant, ghastly stuff.

When it first appeared to great acclaim, the black comedy and the horror of The Removalists was undeniably shocking. Whilst it may not have the visceral impact of the original productions in their own time, there is no doubting its dramatic power.

The Removalists by David Williamson Directed by Michelle Miall for Queensland Theatre Company plays at the Bille Brown Studio, 78 Merivale Street, S Brisbane until 6 August. Check the Company website for details.

 

A note from the front lines or Is Winter Brisbane’s theatre ‘season’

Greenroom’s interviews and reviews have been on hold for a bit – as you may have noticed if you are a regular reader here. I’ve been in the trenches known as ‘production week’ for Umber’s production of Water Wars by Elaine Acworth, which played up here on the Darling Downs at Oakey on Wednesday and Thursday. Oh, by the by, there’s nothing quite like an out-of-town opening on a cold winter’s night to bring out theatre’s true believers and supporters – just saying!

The entire company appreciated enormously the effort our stalwart first audiences made to complete the theatre-making circle for us before we head to Brisbane to be part of La Boite’s Indie season next month. Anyway, this post is not about Water Wars butIf you do want to read up on what’s going on, you could check out Umber’s blog or their Facebook page where you will find videos and pictures, and interviews as well as comments on the tech side of things for Water Wars – which are just plain amazing, by the way – definitely more on that to come.

So, the tyranny of distance being what it is, I’ve missed some of the plethora of good things happening on Brisbane’s main stages and in indie theatre this month: Dead Puppet Society’s The Harbinger – sold out much to the glee of La Boite Theatre’s marketing department (good on ’em); some of the Queensland Music Festival‘s offerings including Drag Queensland (where I would have paid anything for a ticket to see a glittery Lucas Stibbard don falsies); the new-in-town-Antix company’s Speaking In Tongues by Andrew Bovell – a chance to see this next week, maybe; Secret Bridesmaids’ Business at the Brisbane Powerhouse; and the 40th anniversary celebration performance of The Removalists at QTC (though I will get to a day-time showing next week). Aside: I got married in the week my husband directed QTC’s first production of this in 1975 – talk about theatre getting in the way of more important life matters – but that’s another post.

Next month rolls out more and more theatre so I’m wondering whether Winter really is Brisbane’s theatre ‘season’. I guess it is.

Oh, and don’t be misled by my use of the word ‘trenches’ above. The experience of working on a new play with everyone involved in the Water Wars production company has been thrilling – hard work, yes – but also a huge buzz. And I got to meet and get to know that lighting genius David Walters. Aside: David is another USQ Theatre graduate from the first year – 1975 – the year QTC first produced The Removalists and my life changed. Loving being back …

Review: Rabbit – The Good Room at !Metro Arts Theatre

Bella is entering her 30th year – a dangerous age we used to be told. For the members of Gen-Y (look it up) portrayed in British writer Nina Raine‘s realistic comedy of manners Rabbit (2006), Time’s wingéd chariot is rumbling along all too loudly on the bumpy road. It’s time to take stock, socialise the hell out of the opportunity and, inevitably, get really ugly with your friends. It’s mostly uncomfortable veritas that emerges as the vino flows and vodka and reputations get slammed in what turns out to be a BLOCK CAPS WITH LOTS OF !!!! kind of party for those who turn up.

Bella’s joined by a handful of friends at her small though positively exuberant 29th birthday celebration in a hotel bar somewhere in Brisbane. Director Daniel Evans has relocated the play to the city, and it works well. Guests include Bella’s good friend Emily, a doctor; former lover #1 Richard, a barrister but wannabe writer; former lover #2 Tom, who works in the city – in Brit parlance a stockbroker or banker; and Sandy, a writer.

On the night of the party Bella’s father, played with intelligence and subtlety by Norman Doyle, is hospitalised and dying from a tumor that is gradually wiping away his seat of emotions and memories; he has refused treatment. Bella is angry with her father for his decision, and guilty for not being at his bedside. We learn it’s been a rocky relationship in a series of flashbacks – heartfelt duets between father and daughter.

Designed by Tara Hobbs, with lighting design by Daniel Anderson and sound design from Anthony Ack KinmouthDaniel Evans‘ production of Rabbit for the indie company The Good Room is a sharp, witty, fast-paced interpretation that draws terrific performances from the cast of six, who are just about perfect for their roles. They are as slick and excellent an ensemble as you could want.

The cast is headed by Amy Ingram as Bella, a successful publicist, in a performance that is as robust as it is gentle and nuanced. It’s also in perfect sync with Raine’s shrewd take on friendship and contemporary society. The performances by Sam Clark, Kevin Spink, Belinda Raisin, and Penny Harpham as Bella’s friends are individually and collectively proof of the depth and quality of acting talent we are experiencing right now in this country. Raine writes terrific characters in this – what was her first and an award-winning work for the stage – and the dialogue is hugely enjoyable; I bet the actors loved working on their roles.

Yes, Bella’s Friends are all a whiny, self-indulgent, privileged bunch and, at times, as nasty as they come; with cynical friends like these etc.  At times you want to slap them all in turn and, sometimes, all at once. I went for an interval drink (YES!! THERE IS AN INTERVAL!! AMAZE!!) loathing the lot of them but, as Raine develops the play throughout the second act, we experience its real strength – the development of characters whose directness and brutal honesty are, perhaps, their saving grace. You actually do end up ‘caring’ for them – and I count this as one of the markers of a good play/production.

So, whilst opening night saw a lot of first-night adrenalin pumping on both sides of the fence – there were a lot of friends in the house – and there was probably a little too much SHOUTING AND LOUD, I have no doubt this fine company will continue developing and finessing across its season. The tiny Sue Benner Theatre will get full houses, so get in quick.

Rabbit by Nina Raine for the indie company The Good Room as part of !Metro Arts Allies program plays until July 28th. Get details from the website.

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Anthea Patrick (Interview 24)

Anthea Patrick has taken some time off from a busy rehearsal week to chat about her current project, Andrew Bovell‘s Speaking In Tongues which opens soon for Antix as part of the Metro Arts Allies program. We start with the background stuff – Anthea is Brisbane-born, bred and educated, though new to the Brisbane indie scene – so I’m keen to find out more about one of the newest emerging artists in town.

Anthea’s parents were dancers, though she admits to being somewhat ‘uncoordinated,’ so she found herself going to drama classes as a kid. She remembers her teachers there and later with great fondness: ‘They encouraged us to be the leaders of our creative ideas and gave us confidence in pursuing the art form.’ As a teenager she went to youth theatre at the Villanova Players, where she got the chance to devise, direct, and to be involved in as many different parts of theatre as we wanted. ‘The older kids were leaders for the younger ones.’ Later, at QUT, where she graduated in 2003 with a BCreative Industries, Anthea found the ‘golden nuggets’ she received from lecturers like Mark Radvan – with whom she studied directing – of enormous help. ‘I had done a couple of horrible productions for the youth theatre at Villanova earlier on; I struggled, just working on instinct but, as I got the opportunity to learn and do more, things started to go well.’ After graduation, Anthea founded herself directing mainstage productions back at Villanova Players. ‘It gave me the opportunity to direct a team.’ She notes that a major part of directing is ‘managing creative minds.’

Managing creative minds – what’s that about? ‘Really, it’s managing the huge amount of trust they give you and the burden of fulfilling that. It’s very easy to get tired and that is the moment when you can really confuse people. The thing I try to avoid is confusing people. Understanding characters and design is pretty complex. As a director I always feel nervous before rehearsals begin; it’s the responsibility.’

Anthea is the artistic director of Antix, a new company on the indie scene in Brisbane. ‘I created the name Antix when I had to come up with a name to get an ABN. Back then I had this little dream that I would make it a place where actors and creatives could develop and then present. Of course, I was too young,’ she adds, ‘and I didn’t know how to make a company happen.’ As the years passed, Anthea found herself coaching and teaching more and more. ‘The dream of producing and directing wasn’t happening. I got a bit lost there, so I gave myself a good slap in the face and said if I want to do something, I’d need to get moving. I wanted to learn more about directing.’ She did her research and found herself one of 11 international students at RADA in London doing their short, intensive directing course. ‘That experience really grounded me and opened up my thinking; I’ll be forever glad I had the opportunity.’ Continue reading “Anthea Patrick (Interview 24)”